Trust: Top Down or Bottom Up?

Top DownIn an organization, trust is generated from the top down rather than the bottom up. Sure, it is important for employees as well as leaders to be trustworthy, but the culture that allows trust to kindle and flourish is usually created by the leaders of the organization rather than the workers.

It is astonishing for me to see the blind spots that many leaders have about how pivotal their behaviors are to how trust is manifest in their entire organization. If the top leader or leaders do not act with integrity and consistency, it creates loops of “work around” activity in all of the other layers. There gets to be a kind of pseudo-trust where people look the part and act the part on the surface, but it is only skin deep. Under the surface, the ability to hold onto trust is as leaky as a bucket that has been used for target practice.

Of all the behaviors leaders display, I think one shines out as being by far the most powerful for sustaining trust, yet simultaneously the most difficult for leaders to master. That is the ability to create an environment free of fear for disclosing one’s opinions about the leader’s actions. In most cultures, people are punished if they express reservations about what the leader is saying or doing. Those cultures continually dampen the ability to sustain real trust, and you get the plastic variety that is evident in many environments.

In brilliant organizations, leaders encourage and reward sharing of scary stuff. I call this skill “reinforcing candor,” because it means the leader is not only open to criticism but actively seeks it. The few leaders who are able to understand the power of reinforcing candor have an easy time building trust and rebuilding trust that has been compromised. This trust is genuine and sustainable; it is not the faux-trust that is so common in most organizations.

If the generation and maintenance of trust is mostly a top down affair, the ability to destroy trust is more balanced. It is just as easy for the rank and file employees to destroy what trust is there as it is for leaders to do it. Acting in ways that show low integrity is the most common method of harpooning sincere efforts to build more trust. Leaders destroy trust when they are duplicitous and fail to follow through on promises. Employees trash trust when they act without integrity in numerous ways, like stealing from the company or spreading rumors.

The nature of trust is that it is always a relative thing. Trust fluctuates based on the situational context of current actions. One should not always expect to find high trust in any area, even the best ones. There are going to be peaks and valleys, and the smart organizations seek a good average and try to dampen out the spikes, both high and low. It is possible for most groups to make great strides in the trust level if they simply work to understand it and improve it daily. Leaders should not become discouraged if there is a lapse in trust; rather, they should redouble their efforts to maintain it.

5 Responses to Trust: Top Down or Bottom Up?

  1. Reblogged this on The Pediatric Profiler ™ and commented:
    I have a belief (my mantra) that all children are born wanting to be loved, accepted, and respected. The rest we have to teach them.
    Trust is an important component of teaching children, especially ones with developmental and behavioral challenges.
    I have worked with hundreds of parents and schools who misunderstand trust, where they are failing at modeling it, and where they are mislabeling competence as trustworthiness.
    Competence is the ability to do something without supports. Trustworthiness is everyone (including the child) knowing that they can do it (are competent) and that they follow through.
    One child in 6 has a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how they learn, interpret the world, and interact with others.
    Expecting competence and trustworthiness without taking these struggles into consideration leads to anger, frustration, and confusion by everyone involved.
    Let’s begin by trusting that the child isn’t alive just to make your life worse. Let’s trust that they would rather be seen as a welcome addition to your life. Let’s trust that with continual help, they will be able to become competent and therefore more trustworthy in a variety of areas. Be aware, however, that this is on their timeline, not necessarily a chronologic (age) timeline or an academic (grade) timeline.

  2. Vinay says:

    Yes I agree leaders play a dominant role as far as trust building is concerned. Nevertheless the environment in an organisation is largely dependent on tbe policy framework setup for execution of work in an organisation where employees have to make significant contribution . Finally teamwork , Delegation, productivity are largely dependent on the trrust level prevailing in an organisation.

    • Raj Rengarajan says:

      Trust and credibility are key from the top to instill a high level of engagement and integrity at the bottom. Ironically, what is top to one layer will be bottom to the step above in hierarchy.

      Also the rule of innocent until proven guilty should be the guiding principle as opposed to the contrary.

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